Monday, December 21, 2009

Welcome to the Trolliverse

Recently (OK, I'm a slow learner!) I've started to realize that comment threads online are often stuffed with comments that appear out of place--i.e., they seem to be not written by valid participants of that forum, or by actual readers of that publication.

You've probably noticed the same, at least subliminally.

It's becoming clear to me that many forums are
stuffed with ringers, falling into three groups:

1. Lone operators, usually ideologue cranks, who have no life. They go to forums to flame real participants in hopes of triggering powerful angry responses. This achieves what's known as negative intimacy. Same thing as some angry divorced people strive for with their exes.
Negative intimacy is safer emotionally than positive intimacy. It requires no social skills. And there's no risk of rejection. In positive intimacy you tell someone "I like you" and the other can say "Well I don't like you." Crushing. But if you tell them "You suck" nothing is risked. So on a primal level it's safe.

You can spot them because usually they're functioning on a more primitive level than the people they're attacking, so it quickly becomes clear that they're interlopers. I once got such a flame for this blog. I had to edit out a bunch of cursing in order to run it.

Often the flamers pick up enough of the language used by people on the forum to parrot it--thus with global warming forums, they use terms like "junk science" and "scientific method" but they don't actually know what these mean. But they don't need to--they just need to wield them such as to generate a response--the angry response they need. Or at least think they need.

2. Volunteer ideologues directed by like-minded websites or talk radio hosts to mount a blitzkrieg attack on designated forums. This is a version of a DNS (Denial of service) executed on a human rather than programmatic level. The purpose is twofold:

a) to simply disrupt the conversation and deny one's opponents a forum by filling it with distractions, chatter, and vicious attacks;

b) give the impression that a large part of the public--or at least of the constituency of that website/special interest group--is actually against the issue most valid participants of that website actually advocate, or vice versa. It's fifth column work designed to sow dissension and despair and make people feel like they alone hold their beliefs--to doubt their beliefs.

3. Paid hit men (and women) who do the same as #2. I did some digging on the Net and found links to a couple of sites that offer this service. The ones I saw appear to be rightist/corporatist. I don't know whether they'd do the same for someone on the other side, but I suppose it's possible. And I don't know if there are left wing services that do this for money.


For example, Scientific American Magazine's website recently ran an op-ed piece about global warming and the Copenhagen conference. The comments thread was flooded with global warming deniers along with extremely hostile attacks on anyone advocating acting to mitigate global warming, along with general attacks on scientists as a group.

I've subscribed to the magazine for decades, and I know what its audience is like. These attacking commentors were obviously not Scientific American readers. Not necessarily because they were global warming deniers, but because of the character of the attacks.

I asked one of these guys point blank in the comments thread whether he actually read the magazine, and his response showed to my satisfaction that he didn't.

The first time the LA Times permitted comments on opinion pieces, the comments were flooded by psycho spamming. They had to shut down the comments threads and try to figure out how to deal with this. I don't know whether they've come up with a plan.

Some of the most insidious are Creationists on forums discussing evolution. They get fed questions to ask, ask them, then scientists waste countless cycles trying to reason with them. But all they ever get is the next set of superficially scientific-sounding questions. Thus they tie up the forum by moving the subject towards their set of preoccupations, which no one who understands evolution has.

It's easiest to spot such trolling on a website whose subject matter you know a lot about. But really, trolls--whether paid, volunteer, or unemployed guys living in their parents' basement--generally come off about the same.

They all fight dirty--and it shows.

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